A common problem which causes psychological distress is the inability to let other people down.
I say it bluntly, because we need to be clear what we are talking about. I could beat about the bush using terminology such as ‘boundaries’ and ‘assertiveness’, but I feel like talking about the inevitability that, in the end, we let other people down. We might as well be honest about the fact that we have to let people down. Once we have done that, we might find some peace.
LETTING OTHER PEOPLE DOWN
What an interesting phrase that is! To let someone down, in common parlance, is to disappoint them, to fail to help them in their hour of need. The implication is that expectations were up there in the first place – that someone, somewhere, had an idea that we should be there for them. We feel, perhaps for reasons of our own self-care, that we can’t support others as much as we would like. So we begin to think of how to clear our time, how to make some space for ourselves, how to regenerate our energy and resources.
What is it you are afraid of, if you fear letting other people down? Perhaps it comes from your past, when there were consequences for not living up to others’ expectations. Perhaps it comes from your nature, which may always have been to look to others’ need and try to fulfil them. Perhaps it comes from your future plans – if you let people down, maybe they won’t give you back what you need in the future, such as employment, or a good relationship.
Whatever the case, there is inevitably a moment where you have a choice. Which voice will you listen to? The one which tells you to do what is expected of you by others? Or the one which tells you to do what you would naturally want to do? You receive an invitation. You are asked a question. You weigh up the situation. And you feel that internal groan when you agree, yet again, to live according to what others want of you. The problem is that all these moments accumulate into one big internal feeling that your own wishes and inclinations come last. Until, finally, you have a blowout. It might be that you become ill; it might be that you run away; or it might be that you suddenly get angry and irritable with others.
A WAY OF REFRAMING THE ISSUE
I’d like to make a suggestion. Let’s look at that phrase ‘Letting other people down’ in a different way. Instead of thinking of it negatively, let’s try and reframe it positively. Imagine that you are carrying other people on your shoulders, so many people that you are in danger of falling. Would it not be kind to place some of them gently back on the ground, so that they can feel safe, and avoid the personal risk of a fall?
So next time you think of letting other people down, imagine yourself gently placing them on firm ground, and making sure that they are safe.
ONE DAY YOU WILL LET EVERYONE DOWN
One day you will die. That, really, is the ultimate in ‘letting everyone down’, as after you are dead, you will be unable to help anyone do anything.
The reason for pointing this out is not to depress you. It is to remind you that your powers are limited, and that it is better to get everyone used to not being dependent on your presence for their happiness. You are doing them a favour, training them for a time when you will not be there.
Parents know this about their children: that the idea of parenthood is to work towards a time when your children are able to live independently without you. Otherwise, what are you doing? Probably hugging them to you to make yourself feel better. That’s fine, but it may not help them to live well. Perhaps it is wise to give all your friends and family the proverbial fishing rod, rather than constant fish. That way, they can help themselves without you.
THE KINDS OF CONVERSATION YOU WILL HAVE
If you learn to do this, you will be learning to let others down in their own interests. You will be like the teacher who, when asked a question, gives the answer that is most enabling to the student. Or like the parent who, when asked for help by their child, gives the help most likely to encourage the child’s independence.
In partnerships and close friendships, at first you will sound one step removed from reality. People will think that you don’t care about them, because you are becoming better at walking away when you need to. They might even try to tie you into arguments or emergencies in order to wrap you into their lives. But as you get better at letting others down, they will learn that you don’t mean any harm, only to be humble about the limits of your capacity to help. Those close friendships will become more trusting, because you have shown that you trust yourself.
YOU CAN STILL HELP OTHERS
Do I mean we should stop helping others? Absolutely not. But I do mean that we should stop offering other people the fake help which slowly kills us. Better to give freely the help that we like to give.
Once there was a Buddhist teacher who was asked by a student for financial help. But they didn’t give it. The student became angry with the teacher. ‘If you care about me,’ the student said, ‘then you wouldn’t deny me the means of my salvation!’ The teacher said nothing, but instead continued to teach the student. Eventually, the student developed the wisdom to help themselves. Their financial problems improved, but they still went to the teacher. ‘Why do you think you still come?’ asked the teacher. The student thought about this, and eventually had to admit that the teaching was more valuable than any money he could have been given.
It is better to sincerely give what you love to give, than to falsely give what you secretly resent giving. It is a hard lesson to learn, but once you have learned it, you will be happier for it.
The next time you fear letting other people down, imagine that letting others down is an act of kindness, putting them on a safe floor, and not holding them up with your fallible muscles. This should enable you to resolve your dilemma more peacefully.
A common cause of distress is the fear of letting other people down. Many people live on a wheel of obligation, doing what others expect because they cannot bear to live according to their own wishes. Eventually, they get depressed, or anxious, because the internal frustration is too great.
But letting others down is natural. More than that, it is better to teach others to do without you, than it is to live in accordance with their expectations. It is better parenting, and better friendship. Of course you can still help others. But give what you can sincerely and lovingly give. And don’t worry about the rest.